Advice from a non-bookish person on how to read David Foster Wallace’s ‘Infinite Jest’
I had heard a lot about this book before I ever saw it in person. ‘Infinite Jest’ was a sort of “Holy Grail” for readers and I was aware of that, because I would see it mentioned online as a sort of punchline for all things long and complicated. The truth is; yes David Foster Wallace’s opus is long, and it is complicated, but to paint it as a sort of unconquerable mountain is absurd.
I am not someone who would classify themselves as an excellent reader. I make it through maybe half a dozen books a year, and the majority of my reading would take place in an online environment of some sort, whether it’s my laptop, or social media, or an article saved to my phone. I own a TV, and follow sports, and watch and re-watch sit-coms on Netflix like they’re food pellets keeping me alive. This is me.
I’m not someone who can swallow whole tomes with relative ease. Yet, between May and November of 2013, I made it through the entirety of the book alone, naked and afraid. I did it, and you can too. Here is some advice from a non-bookish person on how to read ‘Infinite Jest’.
1. Simple doesn’t mean easy
I went through a period in my life where I suffered horrible debilitating panic attacks, and I had to defer a year of college, seek out medication and therapy to rebuild my life from scratch. During this time, my father — who also went through a similar event in his own life — offered me some important advice with regards to recovery. This is a piece of wisdom that I have applied to a vast spectrum of affairs in my life, ranging from cooking an omelette to going back to college and getting my degree. One day after a particularly rough panic attack, he sat me down in the living room and told me “Just because something is simple, doesn’t mean it is easy.”
While reading ‘Infinite Jest’, those words were in my head, and it helped me keep going towards the end. Understanding the difference between simplicity and ease is not an issue of semantics. It is an important distinction to take into account when undertaking a task, and an active awareness of this will keep you alive through Infinite Winter.
The book is made up of short chunks. These are not difficult to read, but to keep reading, and looping them together to form a woven narrative makes things complicated. However, keep putting one foot in front of the other. Read one chunk at a time. It’s totally normal to not feel quite sure about what the hell is going on, but don’t look forward and think about how much is left or worry about where this specific part fits in the overall structure. Stay in the moment. Like a dying man in a hospital bed, the only thing the book requires is for you to stay with it and stay present.
2. Wreck this book
This is a huge book, and it will take a long time to read, as such, it’s going to generate some wear-and-tear. Don’t be too protective of your copy. If you’re one of those types who enjoy the tactile physicality of books, the smell of the pages upon first opening, the kind of person who tries not to crack the spine … well, you’ll probably not like this, but you need to let this one go.
A good condition copy of ‘Infinite Jest’ likely hasn’t been read. There are obvious exceptions. I’m sure you could read the book at a table with some white gloves in a protective atmosphere, but you’d miss out on the experience of having this book become a part of your life.
I used to chuck mine in my bag before work, bring it with me to my girlfriend’s apartment, and generally read it any time I had a spare moment. It certainly wouldn’t withstand another reading, and that’s a good thing. Make your notes, and highlight your favourite bits, and for the love of all that is holy and good in this world, don’t be precious about it. Battle scars are cool. I wrecked my copy, and you should too.
3. Read for long periods of time
One of the things I found was most important about ‘Infinite Jest’ was that the longer I continued an individual session of reading, the more I enjoyed the novel. There are ample opportunities for breaks. You could read a few pages, stick your bookmark in at a natural stopping point and go have some tea, but memory retention is a strange beast. It’s never as good as you think. It’s why some TV shows have those pre-amble recaps at the start of every episode. You don’t need them if you’re binge-watching an entire series of ‘The Wire’ in one day, but if you’re going a while between episodes, then some gentle prompts can help.
The best way to combat this is to just keep reading. Set aside blocks of time and read in large portions when you can. For longer chapters, this may be necessary anyway, but threading together multiple short ones will really enhance your reading of the book. Much of Wallace’s writing builds towards payoff points — moments where all the long meandering of dozens of pages suddenly clicks into place, and these are why I loved ‘Infinite Jest’.
Other writers can demonstrate linguistic gymnastics at the same level as Wallace, and there are plenty of other novels that will give you gratification and entertainment, but ‘Infinite Jest’ stands alone in a different category. The effort it requires and how it rewards you for said effort is what sets it apart. In a world where books are gold necklaces, ‘Infinite Jest’ is a gold medal.